Tools of the Trade – at the practice desk

Posted on November 5th, 2019 by

Some of the mutes on my work desk

12/11/19 Things to be done. Practice/Practise

So this morning, after a day recording yesterday , I confess I am moving to the violin slowly, tentatively. The quartet will meet to rehearse late Beethoven this evening, which will concentrate the mind, and hands. But this morning will be violin-free. So I have been thinking about practice, and how the word snakes its way across our lives and work. Thinking about this word helps any artist, any practitioner, to articulate their relationship with their work, their craft, their art.

At this point, an interjection from one my go-to books, the Rev. Walter Skeat’s ‘Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language’ (1882), which I bought (15 pence, it says) from my school library sale, when I was 14. Skeat was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, so he draws the line back through Middle English ‘Praktike’, clearly from the French ‘Practique’, Latin ‘Pratica/Praticus. He raps me over the knuckles at this point: “‘practition-er’, formed by needlessly adding -er to the older term practician from OF [old French] ‘practicien’ , a ‘practicer in law'”. Whilst taking my ticking-off, I would like to note his use of ‘practicer’ and would argue that he has spelt it wrongly…

Think of the noun ‘Practice’, as used by a doctor, a yoga instructor, a sports team, and an artist. Curiously, musicians think about practice in just as broad a manner, but have a tendency to not acknowledge its breadth of meaning for them. When my yoga teacher talks about her practice, and her routines for practice alone, at home, she talks about simple rituals, particularly the lighting and snuffing of a candle. As a musician I immediately relate, although being married to a Dane, the candle is a less ritualised, yet no less important, symbol of the never ending resistance to darkness that is the nature of North. Musicians often talk about ‘getting some good practice done’, in a very straightforward, yes, pragmatic manner, outwardly downplaying the enormous spiritual importance of practise/practice, but making it clear by their actions, that it is fundamental to who we are.

‘Pragmatic’ came to have, an association with ‘business’ (Anglo-Saxon bysig, ‘active’, which of course, exists in what Robert Eisenmann would call a ‘language circle’ with ‘bee’, as in ‘busy bees’, which of course is a wonderful example of a tautologous alliterative assonant onomatopoeia). But the ancient Greek (sorry that this website does not support Greek text) pragma is simply one of the nouns derived from the verb ‘Prasso’, from which the Latin cited above is drawn (By this point I have pulled my Liddell & Scott Lexicon(1889) from the shelf, and am having too much fun).

A vital part of practice is what we do that enables our practice. Perhaps it should be the other way around: I know, that if my lower back feels stiff, the best thing that I can do is to go and quietly play the violin for an hour, which encourages the right sort of lumbar mobility. I would say that the ‘doing’ part of all of this scrabbling around for meaning is the most important, the place where practice directly affects how we view our health, how we ‘look after ourselves’. In my case it’s exercise, a word which we use in a way which would be unrecognisable to a Victorian English-speaker, but not to a 19th century French musician – les exercices for example, was the moniker given to the public rehearsal/performances of the newly-founded Paris Conservatoire. But for me, it’s running, yoga and bouldering.

My climbing shoes. 12 11 19

Three examples of the practical application of these (beyond the manifest health benefits). Many years ago, spending a summer practising and running in Epping Forest, I realised that I could work the tempo, speed, spring and pacing of both slow and fast movements through running speed, posture, and breathing. I have a particularly strong memory of the first moment that this became apparent, working on the Danses Suisses movement from Stravinsky’s Divertimento (from the Fairy’s Kiss). I found the right tempo somewhere around Connaught Water, on a crisp autumn morning, like this one.

I am, as will be apparent, an enthusiast (there’s a loaded word) for the spellings of ‘practice’ and ‘practise’. I like the fact that this not a rule, that we have to (if we care) take a position on it. The spelling of the noun (‘c’) derives from the ‘k’ in the Greeknoun ‘Pratikos’, which is derived from the Greek Ionic verb ‘Prasso’ – hence the ‘s’ in the verb ‘practise’. I enjoy the silent distinction.

My other two examples pertain to attention. Earlier in this group of thoughts, I mentioned the struggle that I had, as a younger player, to find a technique to only focus on what I was doing, to not be distracted.

For the musician – we walk on stage, or the red light goes on, the audience falls quiet, and we have to inhabit everything that we do, with absolute attention, but lightness. When you are standing there, about to record brutal octave passage in a concerto, with the clock ticking, and the orchestra patiently (but not so patiently) sitting there, so that it’s a get-in-one-take situation, you have to play with absolute, blood curdling attention to detail, and with no sense of strain, both at the same time (perhaps that’s the art of the practical). My son’s running teacher taught him to run holding a Pringle between the first two fingers of each hand. The great saloniste intellectuals of the late 18th Century said: ‘Glissez, n’appuyer pas’. Practice enables all of these things, the fury of concentration, the quiet of just being here, to co-exist, to practise.

So no more beating about the bush. Back to work. I wish you good practice.

Chair 11/11/19

On a morning like this, when I am just about to leave to record a concerto (Gregory Rose), I am particularly aware of, and grateful for, my practice routines and habits. Even with a piece that I know as well as this (we premiered it well over a year ago), the steps towards recording are increasingly concentrated ones, and can be stressful, so having everything in place so that I can work effectively is vital. It’s then, or rather, now, that I am particularly aware of the importance of my practice chair. It will be clear by know that I practice sitting down, at a table. I will come to the more physical aspects of practise and preparation in time. I wonder if this would be quite the same, if I had a studio, but I have always lived and worked in relatively small, shared spaces, so I don’t know that I would be comfortable with this. Knowing a lot of writers, I have noted how many of them, even when they have studies, scriptoria even, end up in, or just adjacent to the kitchen or the living space, where all the action is.

I have used the same chair for over twenty years, since I, mmm, stole it from my young son, as it is a classic Norwegian ‘Tripp Trapp’, the chair designed in 1972 to ‘grow with the baby’ by Peter Opsvik. From the moment it arrived, along with my son, who was born in the room where I practice, I started using to work (stripping off the safety bar at night). It ensures that I sit well, and that I move, which is the most important thing, and it has a vital lack of comfort. Every time I find myself in a hotel room, when I am travelling, I check for one thing first – that there will be hard chair. I find if important that I can sit on something honest, that does not try and make me feel good, but is just like a straight edge – very often, hotel concierges are puzzled by my horror of soft furnishings and ergonomic desk chairs. I tend to use my Tripp Trapp with a yoga ‘block’, either horizontal, or vertical, or sometimes for one or both of my feet. The chair has a foot rest which means that all kinds of configurations can be used, sitting. There is no correct posture to practice, but there are plenty of bad ones, and this chair encourages the good. In fact, it’s not the only Tripp Trapp that I practice on. When we are in New York, staying with my family on the Upper West Side, I use one that I found, thrown out on 90th Street. It’s good to know that it’s there, waiting, so that whenever I arrive, there’s no excuse to not practice, and so much important work has been done on that chair, often in summer or spring holidays (which is when my wife and I know that we will have the time to get some real practice and writing done).

My work chair after a long night of practice 11 10 19

One of the things that I love about the London chair is its character. Over the years, it has developed a wonderful vocabulary of creaks and squeaks, and now it is impossible to move in it, without and attendant chair-chit-chat. In the middle of the night, every sound is important – rain on the setts outside, the foxes crying in the park behind me, a taxi idling for a fare – and the chairs eccentric conversation is one of the things that gets me through. The 90th Street Tripp Trapp is mute. But this is not going to be a long post. I have to check my bits and pieces, and get to the real work, in front of the mic, what all the preparation is actually for.

Tea 10/11/19

I am fascinated by artists’ routines, and particularly the routines of artists that work alone. Recently I went for a meeting at an artists’ studio: when hellos were said, I was asked if I would like a cup of tea. Now, in the world that I understand, this would either be the moment that the conversation is continued by the kettle, or I would be left to nose around the work room alone (which is always fascinating). But no, the conversation continued, and, three minutes later, there was a tap on my elbow, and I found myself being handed my tea by a very polite assistant. This put me quite out of kilter (the galley area was literally five steps away, so why….), and bothers me increasingly. At what point does an artist decide that it’s a good use of ANOTHER (younger) artist’s time to bring them a beverage? Enough of that (I was not meaning to rant, but it just happened, as we were thinking about this).

Not for the break. My pot of Verbena tea 10 11 19

My wife, Malene has just finished a short film about the work of artist Joanna Jones. My favourite part of it is an opening, hand held sequence. Joanna’s studio is in the attic of the 19th Century house she owns in Dover. Malene begins her film following Joanna carrying a tray of tea things up the winding stairs to the studio, to begin work. The pot of tea is the signal that work has started – it’s part of the process. It’s the same for me, most particularly working late at night. About ten years ago, Malene introduced me to Verbena tea, and for me it became the night/work drink. I liked its history: revered by Gaulish druids, who extracted blue dye from its bark, and the Romans, who crowned heroes and victors with its leaves (Laurel was for runners and boxers, thankyou Pindar), and even had a festival where it was celebrated, the Verbenaculum.

But most importantly, it’s part of the quiet, the slowness, the nothingness that I need in around my work at the violin. This might be just me, but I have found that nothing good ever comes or came from hard work. A piece of music that has been learnt through effort will, inevitably, sound, when played, like gritting your teeth. I find that the tea, even if I don’t drink more than a sip of that, is a reminder, to take a breath, more than one, and to go beyond thinking about things, considering, puzzling, working out, to the unthinking, forgetting, almost absent minded place where the real discoveries will be made. For me it’s what Keats seemed to be looking for in wine:

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,/And with thee fade away into the forest dim: […]

Ode to a Nightingale – John Keats

…and yes, I know that the poem is about much more than my practice routine, and, no, I am not talking about being drunk. But there’s something of the suspended state, floating, even dreaming, which is the very nature of the most prosaic hour of practice. When we are young, it seems impossible to find, and the activity can be (and often was, in my case) a fretful, juddering, resentful experience. And then there were moments when I realised how astonishing is might be. One, when I was 15 or so, I was desperately looking for ways to avoid distraction, just to focus on the violin, while I was working (I was learning the Beethoven Concerto at the time). So I turned out all the lights in my bedroom. After a while it began to work; it seemed as if something magical was happening – then I realised what turning the lights out had revealed (and I will never forget this), as I slowly worked my way through the garlands of scales and arpeggios that is the first movement of the concerto, I realised that my scratchings were being elegantly counterpointed, outside, in the dark, where it had started to snow – enormous, soft flakes. A moment of grace, for sure.

That’s all I am looking for when I work. And the tea helps.

Notebooks 9/11/17

If there’s one object that I cannot be without, it’s my notebook. It’s always in my hand, and I worry at it on trains, in meetings, on walks, at meals, on the sofa, in hotel rooms, in departure lounges … and at the practice desk. You might say that it serves like a lifeline, or perhaps a lightning rod, between the seclusion and isolation of practice and, well, everything else. If nothing else it, or rather they, is, are, have been, comforters – but comforters with purpose: compasses, or sounding boards. For it there’s one thing I can say about notebooks, it’s that I have no idea about its purpose.

A practice page in the notebook for summer 2019

… As to the purpose of the notebook on the practice desk, well that ranges from the intensely practical, to the obliquely useful, to the frankly irrelevant. I don’t mind admitting that I was influenced by the ‘Tagebuch’ which Beethoven kept from 1812-1813, in which each page was laid out with numbered entries to fill in. Beethoven just filled it with whatever flitted across the transom of his mind at any given moment; notes on ways to avoid using the harp orchestrally, reminders to meet with musician friends for food and chat about instruments, laundry lists, philosophical musings, failed attempts at addition and subtraction etc. . It is clear that, to his mind, there was simply not a border between the practical and the speculative, and noting either was important to him. For some reason, right now, I am remembering Elgar’s habit of drawing cats in his scores – the very piece of paper that he might be trying to work his way into the most profound musical problem was equally important as a space for diversion, for messing around (just like his boomerang – but that’s another story).

So, at the practice desk, I use my notebooks to work out programme orders, to note down ornamentations, or as in the example above, little arrangements that strike me, to notate timings of pieces in a performance list, observations on the instrument that might be in my hand at the time. Or, I put the violin down, and drift towards what goes in the notebook the rest of the time. And this particularly relates to my slightly odd relationship to drawing and painting, which while they are very important to me as vital part of my life, at various times, creep into the practice room as a means to work out, work on, explore the problems and ideas which are attendant to the work with the violin in hand. There are moments, more than moments, when the drawing pencil, paint, charcoal, graphite, wax, Sharpie, whatever comes to mind or hand, needs to overwhelm the apparently simple musical work, in order that progress can be made. I will need to come back to this at a later date.

Practice drawing. October 2010

The same can be said of the role of the notebook, in and out of the practice room, as a copybook. It is curious to me that so little is said about the importance, the usefulness of copying out passages of writing, music, or painting. We have a sense that this helps us some how – at its simplest this can be seen in people’s need to copy out inspirational phrases, to have around them, whether they are from Gandhi, Virginia Woolf, whatever. In my case, there’s a slightly more neurotic tendency, to copy out extended passages, which have a greater or lesser relevance to my work as a musician at any given time. If I flip back through the pages of the notebook which is in my hands at the moment, I find, a few days ago, that I was writing out a passage from T.H.White’s translation of a 12th century Bestiary – this is on a page with notations on practising Nicola LeFanu and Bach, with unaccountably, some old Norse nautical terms – the word ‘Beitiass – tacking boom’ has been underlined (who knows, it might come in handy). The passage in White which I wrote out bears repeating, as in retrospect, it might be seen as a memo to self, when the strain of practice (and it can be a strain) becomes a little much. I am certainly finding it useful this morning:

‘It is claimed that an eagle presents his young to the sunbeams, and holds the children up to them in the middle air with his talon. And if one of them, when stricken with the sun’s light, uses a fearless gaze of his eyes, with an uninjured power of staring at it, that one is made much of, because it has proved the truth of its nature.’

A Bestiary. T.H.White, P.107

Table 8/11/17

Just in from a morning teaching, and waiting for the composer Gregory Rose to arrive for more work on his wonderful concerto, which we record on Monday. So I am thinking about my practice table.

The workbench, literally

I have done all of my practice at this gateleg table for the past twenty years. It’s a very simple, very old, object-probably made by jobbing carpenter at the end of the 18th Century. At some point in the next century, someone decided that it was too low and added iron boots on the bottom of the simply turned legs to raise it about 5 inches. I confess that I cannot work at a music stand. If I was a keyboard player, I would want to practice at a square piano with the top closed and the keyboard flap open, so that I could write above my hands. With the way that I mark scores, I need to be able to write horizontally, and this ensures that I never play or practice ‘reading’ the music. It also means that all off my tools can be spread around and dont fall on the floor.

I do confess that this poor table suffers with my incessant work on it. So much ink, verbena tea, coffee, and whiteout has been spilt on it, and over the years, my father has re-French-polished it a number of times. The two flaps, on which I write, have a tendency to warp, so every few weeks, I turn the table around to allow them each to have a chance to straighten out.

I like that this was not a table made for a grand space, but, in my mind for a worker’s home. It came from the East End house of a great – aunt, who died when I was 14. The patina of the wood, wood that has been used, touched, cleaned, bumped, over centuries, is like that of old tools, and, lets face it, of a violin. By now, it’s an old friend, and I cannot imagine my work without it. It’s not particularly steady, and curiously for a gateleg, has 4 legs, not 6. But the wobble is part of it’s character: when I lean on it to write (or sometimes with my head in my hands, which can happen with violin practice), it shimmies a little, talks back to me, like Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Little Old Table’

Creak, little wood thing, creak,
When I touch you with elbow or knee;

Clock 8/11/17

It’s 8 am and I am sitting with my morning coffee, before going off to teach at the RAM. There’s really not much in my head, except the sensation of gears slowly turning; waking up, I have started to process the practice I did last night, or rather this early morning. My best time for focused work is between midnight and three. When we first moved into this apartment in Wapping, many years ago, I noticed that 2 or 3 am were the first times that the city was quiet enough that I could/can hear the chimes of Big Ben, the ‘Westminster Chimes’ which actually were taken from William Crotch’s oratorio ‘Palestine’, although not his tune (another story), from four miles along the river. If the windows are open, I found that I could use the chimes to to mark out my overnight practice.

A vital tool

For the young musician, Time can be a troubling thing. For a start, there’s not enough of it, what with school, and homework. So for many kids with a violin, they might find themselves trying to use less of it practising, to cut corners: ‘clockwatching’ was what was accused of. But no one, it seemed, could tell me how to use time. I was aware, that the violin demanded/demands an enormous investment of the stuff, but when the division of time we were all most familiar with was the daily horror of school day, when practice was squeezed into the times that everyone else was out playing, having fun, it was difficult to know how to organise it, and early experiments with long practice sessions failed. Then, when I was about ten or eleven, my inspirational/occasional teacher, Beatrix Marr told me a story about having to learn the A.C.Mackenzie violin concerto at some speed, and how she had worked out that her body and mind functioned best in 45minute slots, punctuated by stops to lie on the floor, make tea, etc. . I was extremely excited, hearing her recall the intensity of work which resulted from this, and how to build a 6 hour practice day. This, might seem obvious to a grown-up, but it was a ‘light-bulb’ moment for me, and gradually I worked out my rhythms, and was able to build up to what seemed huge amounts of work in a day (4-5hours).

Fast forward to now, and I know, that the most important element of practice, as of music itself, is Time. I am very strict with myself about it, and whilst keeping the clock out of view, aim to work to specific times, and then stop. As a general rule, there’s a point beyond which I cannot achieve anything, and the clock enables me to stop long before that. Practice should not be effortful, or rather as my Yoga teacher says, it should be ‘effortless effort’. In addition, working to a schedule avoids practice sprawling out across the important things in life, being with friends and family, going for a walk, cooking a meal, doing nothing (perhaps the most important of all).

So last night was a short session, just 2 hours, tinkering with my new version of a Vilsmayr Sonata and the Gregory Rose concerto which I record on Monday. Big Ben struck 2 am and the violin went away. Anything not fixed can wait for the next session.

Pens & Pencils 7/11/19

Everyone uses pens or pencils, though in this electronic age, they do not dominate our lives and work in the way that they used to. So really, what this next couple of of posts will be about, is how I work on, prepare, and inscribe my performing material. If I seem to be a little pedantic about this there’s a reason, which goes back to medieval notation in the western tradition. It’s very clear, looking at early scores of choral music, both in neumes and mensural notation, that a majority of them were not designed as scores to be read/performed from, but records of what to do/what was done. Of course, when one looks away from music, this is very present in the nature and function of a play or film script. But it is very true in the nature of parts prepared by individual performers: they are both records of process, both in the printed notes and the markings which we put on them. Some performers, such as Glenn Gould or Yehudi Menuhin, had a dramatic relationship with their scores, which can be seen as recording the process of digging their way into the music, the drama of coming to an understanding of the notes. In later life, Menuhin turned to brightly coloured, thick felt-tip pens, so his scores can look like a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing. I confess that my parts have a very prosaic function: I try to record in the greatest possible detail, what my hands and arms are doing. The simplest reason for this, is that I need/want to know, when I come back to a score after weeks, months or years, where I was, exactly, the last time that I worked on the piece. In some cases, it is important to me to document the curving relationship with the techne of the score, so I date the amendations as I make them. This is the case with the score of the Paganini ‘Caprices’ which I have used since 2005, and gives me what I find to be an interesting overview of the physiological changes which have a direct effect on the fine detail of this music. I can say without any doubt that the one thing that never happens, for me, is that I read the music and play it, not at the practice desk, and not in the concert. Something else is going on, and I will come back to that.

Today I will just talk about simple things. I aim to put a marking on every note and every bow change. Naturally, a lot of this information will seem to be unnecessary and to a degree, it is. But my reason for doing it, even before the practicality noted above is simple. I need to slow the process down. String players are used, far too used, to the understanding that the fundamentals of their instrument -reading a simple passage – are, on one level, very simple. Show a violinist a melody, or a bit of passage work, and most of the time, they will be able to render it immediately. As a young musician, I was very struck, moved even, by the amount of preparation that a harpist has to make, before they can, for instance, read through a sonata, say the Hindemith. At the very least, they have to work out the intricate net of pedalling, without which, the notes of the piece will not even be there to play, as each string has three strings and these strings overlap enharmonically. The contrast between this painstaking approach and my then practice, which was of the read-it-through-slowly-then-faster-then-clean-it-up variety (sound familiar?), and the the results permanently changed my approach, along with the impact of meeting and studying with Louis Krasner, who aggressively advocated (and proved in this playing) the virtues of the ‘path of most resistance approach’.

So my method, if you can call it that, involves, as one integer, a note by note approach to bowing and fingering. Put simple, individual decisions (and notations) have to be made for the smallest aspects of any work, deliberately derailing any opportunity to read-through.

So on any one of my scores, things marked in black (either pen or pencil), will be the most basic notations of fingerings and bowings.

I have talked about this in more detail here:

Practice Mutes 6/11/19

I am somewhat notorious for turning up to quartet concerts without a mute. Luckily my friend and colleague in the Kreutzers, Clifton Harrison, is the opposite, and, with a smiling sigh, will hand me one of the infinite variety he apparently has concealed about his viola case. But when it comes to my nightly practice sessions, I have no such problem. Practice mutes, or as the Germans call them Hotel-Dämpfer, are perhaps the most important tool of the trade. Sometimes, people ask my wife, what it’s like being married to a musician, expecting a ‘High Fidelity’-type answer. ‘Well’ she says, ‘it’s squeak-squeak, 100 times’. And that’s if I am trying something out energetically. The rest is, well, silence. I confess that, 25 years ago, when I started practising exclusively with the mutes, I had the sanity of my neighbours and my left ear in mind. Nobody wants to endure someone practicing the passage work in a Prokofiev concerto over their heads, and more to the point, I was very aware of the asymmetric deafness that afflicts many of my violin-playing colleagues (a loud, strident, squeaky, 17th century power tool under the left ear is not a good way to auditory health). But very rapidly, the benefits of the near-silent practice became obvious. I will come to the ‘how does it work’ in a day or so, when I talk about pens & pencils. But the most important tool that the mutes offer, is quietness, quietness, which offers the chance to not drown out the sounds in our heads, our imaginations, to not replace that development with aural experimentation, reactions to noise.

Essentials for happy practice Score (Vilsmayr- 6 Partitas). Timer, three colours of pens, Blackwing pencil, practice mute. London 5 11 19

Timer 5/11/19

I would say that this kitchen timer is one of the most important tools on my work bench. I constantly check the relative lengths of sections and movements within pieces. The obvious reason for this is that, when I am building or refining a programme, it’s vital to know how long things will last. If I am making a recording, this is, of course, key. However, the discipline of keeping a close eye on the relative durations of portions of music has truly creative uses, most particularly if I am working on pieces of music which have many small movements or sections, like the 17th century solo music in the picture. It really does not matter how experienced we are, the constant shifts of intensity (technical & emotional) within a work make it almost impossible to gauge how long (in actual time), musical ‘objects’ are, and this knowledge is vital, when structuring, or exploring potential reading of piece on the way to performance.

In addition, the observation of what might seem like tiny shifts in duration, as we return to pieces over time, tells a lot about the shifts of focus and attention within readings of works, and is sometimes more informative than listening to a recording.

Naturally, the timing process does not come into play until a piece is assimilated physically and conceptually, which always takes time. But when that ‘first stage’ of work is complete, clock-work can become useful, and sometimes even enlightening. I have two basic ways of doing it. The first method is to keep an eye to timings as I work on movements or sections of a piece or cycle of pieces. The second, method, which becomes particularly important working on groups or cycles of works, is to note down dimes of sections (large and small) during full, or large scale readings. At this point, the clock encourages the consideration of the natures of moves between movements and sections (the length, intensity and trajectory of silences), and by extension the pauses and fermatas within a work. The clock is a completely dispassionate critic, and visualising a cycle of works or movements, just in terms of moments of rest, silent or not, is a fascinating and useful tool.

Tomorrow. Practice mutes